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Fifth-grade students have Civil War experience in Centralia

Friday, May 20, 2011 | 6:47 p.m. CDT
Henry Wilson, 11, waves a 34-star round Union flag in the air during the Centralia Day on Friday, at the Centralia Battlefield. Students from three Columbia elementary schools were given the opportunity to play the roles of Union and Confederate soldiers, nurses, surgeons and reporters to learn more about the Civil War in Missouri.

CENTRALIA – Sofia Sidorova, 11, began her morning as a surgeon.

She trudged through a muddy battlefield with grass that reached her knees, preparing to serve alongside her peers. She examined authentic medical tools and learned how to dress wounds.

By afternoon, Sofia was ready to assist her troops in battle.

“I’ll be healing other people,” she said. “Let’s just say they got a wound in their leg – I would wrap it for them.”

Sofia, along with 165 other fifth-graders from Columbia elementary schools, traveled back 150 years on Friday for a Civil War experience at the Centralia Battlefield. The location served as their classroom for the day.

“This is one of the things they always remember,” said Sheri Stewart, fifth grade teacher at Midway Heights. "It’s a highlight of their year."

Students from Midway, Two Mile Prairie and Grant elementary schools topped off their study of the Civil War by traveling to Centralia and learning hands-on from re-enactors. The fifth-graders dressed as soldiers, surgeons and nurses to experience life as a participant in Civil War history.

“We’re not glorifying the war; we’re experiencing what life was like during that time,” Stewart said. “It’s about making history come alive.”

The students had the opportunity to examine original and reproduced weapons from the time period. They ate traditional dishes that might have been served during the period.

They were trained in infantry and cavalry tactics, and they prepared for a battle that was eventually rained out.

Jack Chance, president of the Friends of Centralia Battlefield, taught them about the Battle of Centralia where 120 federal soldiers fought 400 Confederate guerrilla forces.

The battle, which took place on Sept. 27, 1864, lasted only three minutes. More than 100 members of the Missouri 39th Volunteer Infantry were killed, including their commander, Maj. A.V.E. Johnston.

There's no need to be an expert on the Civil War to appreciate the history, Chance said.

“This is where 107 Union soldiers lost their lives. They died right here on this field,” he said. “Something very, very important happened here.”

In addition to Chance, the students learned from re-enactors who appeared to have just stepped out of the 19th century.

Among the re-enactors was Lisa Jones, of Brunswick a member of the 5th Regiment Missouri Cavalry.

“I love to teach the kids about the women who actually fought during the Civil War,” she said. “It’s documented that there were about 2,000 women who fought.”

Jones sometimes goes by “Lester” or “LJ” when she is portraying a Union solider, much like the women of the Civil War who were forced to impersonate men.

“When I’m on the battlefield I’ll hear spectators say, ‘Women didn’t fight during the Civil War,’” Jones said. “I just want to stop my horse and say, ‘Wait a minute! We’ve got proof.”

When Richard and Martha Lee Moore donated the historic piece of land to the Friends of Centralia Battlefield in 2006, the group sought to preserve the site and make it easily accessible to visitors. They put in a drive and parking lot and built a footbridge across Young’s Creek.

Don Ernst, 80, a member of the Elijah Gates Camp 570 in Fulton, had a great-grandfather who was in the 1st Arkansas Cavalry, a Union regiment, and fought in the same battle against his own brother, a member of the 34th Arkansas Infantry, which was Confederate.

On Friday, Ernst brought his own artifacts to the battlefield for the students to examine.

“I try to get it through their heads that when you’re studying any time period, you’ve got to try to find out how the people were, how they lived, how they thought,” he said.

“These kids eventually are going to be the leaders of this country, and if they don’t know history we’re in trouble."

Columbia fifth-grade students exit the Centralia Battlefield grounds after getting word that they would not be able to participate in a Civil War re-enactment because of the threat of rain during their participation in Centralia Day on Friday.
Columbia fifth-grade students shoot off toy foam darts while participating in Centralia Day on Friday. Even though rain canceled the drills and mock battles, students were able to take part in various stations to learn about the Civil War.
Columbia fifth-grade students and an Abraham Lincoln re-enactor give applause at the end of the students' participation in Centralia Day on Friday. The students were given parting words from teachers apologizing for the cancellation of the re-enaction because of weather, but also were told this was a time to give thanks to present-day American soldiers and veterans.
From left, Civil War re-enactors John Burgher and Lisa Jones ride toward students during Centralia Day on Friday at the Centralia Battlefield. Civil War re-enactors would have helped the students in the drills and mock battles but the re-enactment was canceled because of the threat of rain.
After shooting off toy foam darts, a group of Columbia fifth-grade students react to their shots while participating in Centralia Day on Friday at the Centralia Battlefield. Each year fifth-grade students from Columbia's Midway Heights, Two Mile Prairie and Grant elementary schools come to the battlefield to participate in a Civil War re-enactment.

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